The Official Online RBS 6 Nations Store is open. The store has everything you need to get behind your team during the RBS 6 Nations, plus the store is now fully stocked with a much wider range of rugby merchandise.
Whether they make the journey in winning form depends on Rome this Saturday and their crack at opponents stripped of almost half the team responsible for their Grand Slam epic of two years ago – Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Geordan Murphy, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip.
The Azzurri used to beat the Irish for fun, three wins in a row during the mid-late Nineties demanding their belated entry into the championship.
Since turning Five into Six eleven years ago, they have lost the lot against Ireland and against England, too, despite two narrow squeaks at the Stadio Flaminio.
They have beaten Scotland, five times, Wales twice and gone within one score of beating England in Rome in 2008 and again last year.
In eleven years of trying to beat France, they have finished a distant second.
Nick Mallett, in his fourth season as Azzurri head coach, concedes that there is still a gap to be bridged in respect of Ireland, England and France.
“We’re probably not as close as we should be,” he says.
“Had our teams got into the Celtic League five or ten years ago, that would have made a massive difference in terms of preparing players for international rugby.
“There have been a lost ten years for Italian rugby. They got into the Six Nations without creating enough opportunities for home-grown Italian players.
“Now we’ve got three under-18 academies, a very good under-20 academy, a top ten club tournament and a good professional set-up with the two Celtic League franchises.
“Another problem was that there were far too many overseas players denying positions for Italian-qualified players.
“The structures are now in place for Italian rugby to go forward although it will take time. I think it will be three-to-five years before we see a genuine improvement in respect of the national team.”
He sees Ireland first up at home as ‘a fantastic opportunity.’
“What I’ve been trying to do with Italy is give the best-ever performance in the professional era against every opponent,” he added.
“We’ve done that against New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and last year we lost to England because we missed one tackle. We were that close to beating them.
“Any game we win is always going to be a right-down-to-the-wire effort. If we do manage to beat Ireland, it will be exactly the same with the game in the balance until the last minute.
“We had reasonable results in November. We went very close to beating Argentina, defended well against Australia and beat Fiji.
“Given that we are in the same pool as Ireland at the World Cup makes this an even more important game to see where we are against a team we will have to beat if we are to make the quarter-finals.
“Even though they have a few injuries, the strength in depth in Ireland is formidable, unlike Italy.
“For us to beat Ireland, maybe we have one chance out of ten of doing it.
“Taking that chance would be fantastic but the reality is that Ireland would have to play badly for that to happen.”
Mallett, whose 17-match winning run in charge of the Springboks in the late Nineties equalled the world Test record set by the All Blacks three decades earlier, admits that he cannot spot a winner of this, arguably the most open of all championships.
“This is the one I can’t call. Last year, I did call France.
“England and Scotland have improved, Wales, Ireland and France have all done Grand Slams. It’s going to be a very, very close championship with nothing in it.
“We’re not going to win it – let’s not be stupid about things. It’s just unrealistic but certainly we can maybe cause an upset which will result in another team not winning it.”
The greatest annual international sporting event kicks off as never before, Wales-England at the Millennium Stadium on Friday night which guarantees that the old rivals will be watched by an unprecedented live television audience.
As well as a full-house 74,500 in the stadium, another ten million or so are likely to be following every move, including Mallett.
“Who knows, this could be the defining game of the Championship,” he says.
“Wales desperately need a win but they’ve got a key injury to their tighthead prop (Adam Jones).
“England have a couple of injuries, too but they played a brand of rugby against Australia which we’d never seen played by England before. It’s a fascinating game.
“With every Welshman screaming for a home win, it’s going to be a very tough for England.
“If they do win it and with three home matches to follow, it could give them enough momentum for a Grand Slam. But right now, you can’t call a winner of the championship which is great.”
What odds Scotland, under Andy Robinson’s invigorating direction, proving the point with a win on Saturday evening in Paris?
They last won there in 1999, on the very weekend when Wales socked it to England at Wembley, thereby completing an amazing climax and ensuring that the Scots reign forever as the last Five Nations champions.